Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus

While Angela Carter says that she does not take part in the post-modern self-reflexivity in writing, in Nights at the Circus she puts forth a profound view of narrative. In interview, she said that books about books, such as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes were writing at the time, were fun, but frivolous, a self-masturbatory exercise that did not create lasting art. Yet in that same interview, she said that the last line of Nights at the Circus, “’To think I really fooled you,’ she marveled. ‘It just goes to show you, there’s nothing like confidence,” is not a statement about feminity or feminism, but a comment about the nature of narrative. Indeed, she gave the question of appropriate narration much thought throughout her career, associating with J.G. Ballard in his assault on the bourgeois novel. In her essays we see her putting forth a theory of art that subtly manipulates reality while keeping a reader believing in the fiction. This, she argues, is the only way to affect change, to fully draw the reader into fiction, then within that framework augment reality and bring in allegories just enough so that disbelief is still suspend-able, but by the thinnest high-wire. This theory indeed excludes the self-reflexive narrative games played in novels like Money or Flaubert’s Parrot, and is executed quiet well in Nights at the Circus.

It is not often noted that from the beginning of the novel there is a very mysterious narrator. It seems like we view Walser’s interview with Fevvers from an omniscient third-person point-of-view, but in a few choice sentences of the narrative, when talking about the characters, the first-person plural ‘we’ is used. It is used just seldom enough that it can be read-over, even seen as a mistake, but, with two characters battling for the protagonist position, it should make the reader question whose story they’re hearing, and whose telling it. From this perspective, the London section of the novel can be seen as introductory. It is entirely back-story, and while it is Fevvers back-story, it is being heavily scrutinized, even through internal-monologue, by Walser. And the London section then ends with this interview having a deep effect on Walser, and affecting a huge change in hi character and life. The former serious journalist from the city decides he wants to do detective work, and join the circus as a clown to follow the story. By the standards of the bourgeois novel that Carter is trying to augment, this makes Walser our narrator, our protagonist, and our means into the larger world of the novel. In the traditional bourgeois novel, an established life is introduced, an event affects that life powerfully enough to change it, and we go through a series of following events with that character until another, more enlightened established state is reached. And at the beginning of the section of the novel, Petersburg, it does indeed seem like we are on this trajectory with Walser. We begin the section with him writing about the raucousness of the circus, in self-described expanding prose, prose he could never write before, but, importantly, we never see that prose.

Instead, in this section, a modern literary tactic that creeped into the narrative as early as page 15, with the authorial interjection, “Oooooh, the gasps of the beholders sent a wind of wonder rippling through the theatre,” takes over. Much like in the Aeolus section of Ulysses, this voice takes over, punctuating the narrative with mysterious headings that arise from the circus banter, but have no place in any individual telling of the story coming from anyone one point-of-view, any perspective, any particular eye’s focus. But, also as with Joyce, this tactic is sub-servient to the narrative; it is a result of it: the order of Walser’s life is breaking down and the circus is picking up where his knowledge leaves off. His prose, in fact cannot substantiate the world of the circus, as he sees when he looks in the mirror for the first time and we quickly sweep out of his inner-monologue so that the narration can interject, “he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, which lies at the heart of the burlesque.” Another author has put it, “Authenticity is the key to life, once you learn to fake it, you’ve got it made.” This is the theory, this is the narrative under which we’re working in Petersburg. Here, Buffo, the head clown, puts the whole world in a vile, drinks it, and pisses it against the wall. Here, a woman that is the broken blossom of the present tense can quell tigers with her song. The narrative of the circus demands these things, boldly states them as fact above and beyond any narrator, and why not believe, as Walser is, because they’re more beautiful and thus more true than any reality they are alluding.

This theory, that the narrative and narration has drawn us into, is, of course, quickly derailed. It is figuratively derailed when Lady M has to shoot her tiger and Buffo goes mad, and it is literally derailed on the train ride to Siberia. This julting change in the narrative course is very purposely brought about by a band of political mercenaries. In Siberia we are forced back into the world of political realities, and there, the narration must come clean. This change of course, this swelling forth of a realistic undercurrent, was foreshadowed in Petersburg, where Buffo spoke Lear’s fateful words, “Nothing will come of nothing,” but it was impossible to see that this would lead to a fully Lear-like tale of political anarchy in the final section of the book.

But that is exactly what happens. The Lear of the book, the narrative coalescing-agent, Walser, enters his fourth act insanity more like the Edgar of Shakespeare’s tragedy, naked and raving mad with sticks entwined in his hair. He departs at this point to let the chaos of the political world take over. His organizing force introduced in chapter one, his power of the newspaper, is shown to be truly powerless in the state of modern politics, for the very reason Walser himself has become powerless, it can fall under the spell of the illusion of the circus – it turns out the train was derailed both because of political exile, and because of a hope in reconciliation based on the facades of the circus, particularly that Fevvers is slated to marry the Prince of Wales.

After this realization, the narrative throws us into a different theory of modern reality, Foucault’s reality, acted out by a mad woman who takes the place of the ever-watching eye. At this point, the narrative requires an entire suspension of disbelief, but the narration insists that it is true, having slipped further into the unlimited third-person that ever before, contrasted with the focalized first-person that has taken over Fevver’s narrative, we see the objective point-of-view showing us that Foucault’s nightmarish view of the life as prison, can be overthrown with a mere touch, and the jail bars can be opened never to be closed again. With this viniette taking care of the political underpinning that have derailed the original narrative, the play can proceed, and it does through both of the characters that originally battled for the protagonist position in chapter one, independently and simultaneously. While Fevvers stages the greatest act of trickery she ever has, and escapes the ruins of the modern political world once and for all, Walser gets in-touch with the basest truths of nature through working with a shaman. Only after both have gone through these transformative experiences that they come back together, and Fevvers speaks her moral for the story, “’To think I really fooled you…It just goes to show you, there’s nothing like confidence.” And while Angela Carter says the act of writing books about books is frivolous, and the bourgeoisie novel point-less, she takes that opportunity to comment on her own art, and the narration that has proceeded it. The fact that the novel doesn’t end with a Pieta, yet another inversion of the reverse-pieta in Lear, hints at the fact that there has been a narrative subversions, that the same magician augmenting the point-of-view has augmented the story for moral sake, like in any self-reflexive fair-tale beginning with once upon a time.

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